.Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness is another Booker long-listed book that I finished some weeks ago when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize — this first novel is doing very well in the prize world. Like Not Untrue & Not Unkind, it was a book that I did not like and felt then that I had little to add in the form of a negative review. Unlike Not Untrue & Not Unkind which I think has no merit whatsover, it should be noted that The Wilderness is very much liked by some readers whose views I respect, a number of whom have it as their current choice for the Booker (here's a link to the Man Booker discussion forum on Harvey’s book). I offer these thoughts up as a counterpoint, fully aware that at the moment at least this is a minority dissenting opinion. I did reread The Wilderness in the last few days — I found it to be only a little bit better book than I did on my disappointing first read.
Jake is in his early 60s. An architect, he left London in early career to return to the “wilderness” where he had been raised and grown up to practice his trade there. (Aside: For some of us in other parts of the world, architects practising their trade in a “wilderness” is not a viable concept at all — but I am more than willing to grant Harvey the licence of a different definition of the word in the context of the United Kingdom than what I am used to when I think of wilderness. It is also true that the wilderness Jake faces is much more in his mind than in his physical surroundings.)
When we first meet Jake, he is a widower, flying over the area where he lives in a small airplane — the excursion a present from his son, Henry, who is in the prison (that Jake designed) which can be seen from the plane. Jake has Alzheimer’s:
In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, there are a number of episodes that float with striking buoyancy to the surface. There is no sensible order to them, nor connection between them. He keeps his eye on the gound below him, strange since once he would have turned his attention to the horizon or the sky above, relishing the sheer size of it all.
Harvey’s first chapter is an impressive piece of work in terms of setting her story. We get to know a fair bit about Jake — his wife, Helen, is deceased; his son is in prison; we know he designed that prison; we know this is the “wilderness” where he chose to live his life. We also know that his disease is changing that life, almost on an hourly basis:
It is not that these surfacing memories just come. No, he casts around for them even when not exactly conscious of it, he forces himself into them and wears valleys through them. He plays games trying to connect them and establish a continuity of time. If it was their honeymoon they were newly married: this is what honeymoon means, a holiday for the newly married. He can nod in satisfaction about the clarity of this knowledge and can then move on. His wife was called Helen. If it was their honeymoon they were young, and he had completed his training, and Henry was conceived.
This would seem to be an appropriate point to declare my personal potential conflicts of interest with this book. I am 61 years old, so Jake is of my age. My father died a few years ago, of a combination of Parkinson’s and related dementia, so I have some personal experience with that. This a work of fiction and Harvey, in her defence, makes absolutely no claim that it is designed as a portrayal of Alzheimer’s. I had originally declined to read this book, wondering about how it would land — I can say with confidence that it did not spark painful memories that made it a bad book. If anything the opposite is true. Jake’s struggle with his condition may be how some people experience Alzheimer’s. It is light years away from my experience with my father’s dementia.
One of the strongest parts of the book is the way that the author locates the real world “constants” that Jake is struggling to put in order. There are, for example, three women in his life: his deceased wife, Helen; his one-night affair with the young Joy; his lifetime friendship with Eleanor, a childhood friend who is now his housemate, lover and companion. And there are his children, Henry in prison and Alice, also deceased. His ancestry — his mother was Jewish and escaped the Holocaust, her parents chose to stay in Austria and perished there. And there is Jake’s decision to leave London and return to his mother and the district where he grew up, sacrificing a career in the city to build a prison and boring housing estates, dreaming an unfulfilled dream about creating a glass house for himself and Helen, sunk on concrete foundations into the peat bog of the wilderness.
One of the exercises that Jake’s therapist requires of him is to build a timeline of his life, and locate these constants on the timeline. Harvey’s book is strongest when she captures his struggle to do that. By definition, Jake’s condition makes him an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that that normally applies in fiction. He desperately wants to be reliable but his condition means that he lacks the competence to do that and his struggles to put these constants from the real world into some kind of order is well-drawn.
So….the problem that I had with the book is that the undamaged and undecaying Jake is not an interesting character at all. While I can appreciate Harvey’s attempt to portray his dilemma (even if I do find it a major stretch to give it credulity), I find no answer to the question of “why” I should care about this. I finished this book (and won’t say that I hated it, I just found it severely lacking) mainly because other readers whose opinions I respect found in it something that I did not — Harvey not only misses the target, as far as I am concerned, she pretty much misses the board.
On both readings of this book, I found myself comparing my reaction to that I had to The Spare Room, Helen Garner’s Australian novel from last year about a woman who plays host to a longtime friend who has terminal cancer and is pursuing a charlatan treatment. Many readers (and its publisher) thought Garner’s book was brilliant — I thought it shallow and unsatisfying, for many of the same reasons that I find The Wilderness wanting.
I have tried to make this review both as honest and as even-handed as possible. Certainly this would not be the first book in recent memory that I have not liked that others thought was very good. Forlorn as the hope might be, I would like to think that these dissenting, negative opinions might help people evaluate this work, even if they reach a far different conclusion than I did.